The digital pathology industry is estimated to be worth $882.7 million and is expected to increase around 6.8% every year for the next 7 years. If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the benefit of digital communication, especially within the medical field.
Telepathology is an umbrella term that includes all the different forms of digital pathology. But there are several primary types, with each offering different approaches and benefits.
So, what are the different types of telepathology? Are some more accurate than others? To discover the answers to these questions and more, just keep reading!
What Is Telepathology?
If you need a quick guide to telepathology solutions, here’s an overview. It is the ability of technology to allow pathologists to practice from remote locations. Meaning they can diagnose, research, and educate without being in the same city or country as the patient or samples.
For example, a hospital in New York that is struggling to diagnose a patient could communicate with a specialist pathologist in California or the UK. There’s also the option of consulting a range of specialists across a variety of disciplines, all in real-time.
Specialists can use digital pathology via three primary systems: Static image-based systems, virtual-slide systems, and real-time systems.
Static Image-Based Systems
This is the simplest form of telepathology. An image is captured to provide the pathologist with enough information to make a diagnosis. This could include biological tissue, blood smears, culture plates, and other data.
This approach is widely used, due largely to its affordability. But it can also be pretty accurate! The benefit of the file sizes being relatively small is that they can be shared quickly and securely with other specialists around the world.
The simplicity of this approach is also its flaw. Only a selected subset of data can be captured, meaning that the pathologist only receives requested elements and may miss a solution offered by a larger, more detailed image.
Low image quality can also be problematic given the complexity of the structures often being examined. And sampling errors can occur if an image has been taken from the wrong area or the wrong sample.
Virtual Slide Systems
Virtual slide systems are the digital equivalent of a frozen sections biopsy. This is where a tissue sample is removed from a patient, flash-frozen, and then sent to a pathologist for examination and diagnosis.
Telepathology pathology scanners can carry out whole slide imaging to produce a digital copy of a glass slide at a microscopic level. Portable scanners allow medical professionals to reach patients in remote locations. All without the pathologist leaving their lab.
These scanners are more high-tech than traditional models. To capture this type of imaging, a standard model would include:
- Digital cameras
- Microscopes (each with a different focus)
- Robotic manipulators
- A slide loader.
High-resolution imaging improves accuracy as well. The pathologist can examine the data and its various subsets in greater detail. Unlike biological specimens, the digital copy won’t degrade over time.
This approach is also fantastic for education, especially within medical schools. In the United States, many have scrapped the use of light microscopes and instead rely on virtual slide laboratories.
However, equipment costs are high and produce large data files. Encrypting and sending these files can be costly, both financially and in terms of time. A speedy diagnosis will improve the survival rates of a patient.
Also known as robotic telepathology, this approach is one of the more recent advances in the industry. The pathologist can remotely control a microscope (which has an attached or built-in camera). This allows them to study the original specimen in high-resolution and real-time.
This approach allows the pathologist to study all the available information.
As the data is being streamed, the overall file size is reduced, meaning that a diagnosis will often be made quicker. This also reduces costs as the servers managing the sending and receiving of data won’t need to be quite as large and complex.
The pathologist can also make use of video call technology to communicate with the lab technicians. By improving assistance and discussion, there’s less room for error. In fact, this approach is nearly 100% accurate!
However, the process requires expensive software, hardware, and high internet capabilities. Costs can be cheaper when using a local area network (LAN), but this is rarely possible.
Technological innovation may improve these drawbacks in time. As there’s no telling what the future of telepathology may hold.
Benefits of Telepathology
Being able to share this type of information across cities, countries, and around the entire planet has the potential to save many lives. Medical professionals will be able to treat patients quicker, improving their chances of survival.
Telepathology goes above and beyond providing off-site pathologists with instant access to samples. The wider clinical applications include education, research, second opinion diagnoses, and much more.
Cheaper methods of producing this technology will make it affordable. Benefiting those in some of the poorest and most remote regions of the world. Specialists from around the globe will be able to connect to offer their professional opinion.
The Next Step
Hopefully, you now understand the three primary forms of telepathology. We’ve covered static image-based systems, virtual slide systems, and real-time systems. The financial cost of these technologies is often matched by the benefits they offer.
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